This week a senior record company executive made legal history by winning pounds 9,000 compensation for being dismissed after he rejected a move that would have separated him from his wife and baby daughter. Jack O'Sullivan finds that the decision is the sympton of a growing trend towards employees demanding that their bosses become more family-friendly.
When James Whyte was told that he would have to spend 75 per cent of his working time abroad, he had, in his mind, little choice about the right thing to do. Mr Whyte, 32, a pounds 40,000-a-year record company executive, told his boss at EMI that he could not accept the change. He had a one- year -old daughter, Emma, and his family had to come first. With EMI unwilling to budge, Mr Whyte threatened to resign and, to his surprise, found himself out of a job.

"I was going to miss my lovely BMW 3-series coupe, the pounds 300-a-year private health insurance and free CDs every month," said Mr Whyte. "I felt terrified, suddenly I had no money and a young family to feed. But if I didn't do it, I would never have seen my daughter starting to crawl, walk and recognise me as daddy."

It is a familiar story, though more usually it is women who make the hard choice. Coming back from maternity leave, they frequently encounter a rigid work culture that is incompatible with spending time with their children. So they leave.

This week, however, an important battle in the war to balance home and work was won, thanks to Mr Whyte. An industrial tribunal awarded him more than pounds 9,000 for constructive dismissal. The tribunal concluded that EMI had made unreasonable demands upon Mr Whyte, who had already agreed to spend 40 per cent of his time working away from home.

This case, however, is just one sign of the family crises caused by the demands of work, particularly on dual-income couples. "The fundamental problem is sustaining relationships," says Penny De Valk, manager of Work/Life Directions, a consultancy which advises businesses on more family friendly policies.

"Travelling away from home can create terrible pressures on marriages when you might be away for half the time." One partner may be in a job that means going away for weeks at a time at short notice, shattering the carefully constructed system of nannies, baby-sitters and shared responsibilities. When that person returns home, it may be difficult for them to fit in again, because the home-based partner has ceased to rely on them and found other ways to manage.

Mr Whyte's wife, Jo, supported his decision, even though, she said, she was terrified when he came home and said that he would have no salary any more.

"I would rather that he had no job at all," she said, " than be travelling around the world the whole time. I would never have seen him and neither would Emma."

Concern about such problems is running high, particularly among professional groups, and it is shared equally by men and women, according to Ms De Valk. "Fast cars, fat-cat salaries and flashy penthouses are no longer enough for the young and upwardly mobile. What they really, really want is to get a life."

It is a sentiment James Whyte echoes. "Seeing my daughter grow up was the most important thing in my life and it was essential I didn't miss it," he said after winning this week's case. "Living in New York may sound exotic but it is not exactly exciting after you've done it for a while, like I have. All you see every day is the office and the hotel, the hotel and the office."

Survey evidence shows that Mr Whyte's feelings reflect his generation. A recent Mori poll found that a quarter of male employees think that family life and career progression is incompatible with their position. One in five of all employees said they would accept a pay cut to have more free time. For all full-time employees the right balance between work and life ranked higher than the challenge of their job, the quality of their boss and even the opportunity of promotion, when they were asked about what made them feel committed to their employers.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at UMIST, believes that the Whytes' generation is rebelling against what employers expect. "The average family has both partners working," he says, "so people are asking a lot of fundamental questions such as, does this really produce a good quality of life? There are people now with young families who worked very hard in the Eighties. These are the people now whom you would expect to be career-driven. But they saw what happened at the end of the Eighties. They saw people being dumped by downsizing. Now, in the Nineties, they are being asked to work the longest hours in Europe, and they live in a country which has the highest divorce rate in Europe. So they are looking for a different way of life, where their values are respected. The Nineties is becoming like the flower power era of the Sixties, but without the flowers."

The problem for these rebels is that the quality research showing how damaging working lives can be is slight. A study by UMIST to be published in December will show that consistently long working hours are related to poor health. But it is harder to prove that family breakdown and poor productivity are caused by excessive work obligations.

Some employers, however, particularly those in the IT sector, are at last introducing family-friendly policies. Tim Robinson, 34, is married with two children under five. But he is also British chief executive of Silicon Graphics, a worldwide computer company. "I like to finish work between 6 and 6.30 and get home in time to bathe the kids and read them a story before bed," he says. "The company's principle is that each individual has to get the job done, but we like to give them as much flexibility as possible. So in my case I'll often work at home after the kids have gone to bed. People's space is respected, whether that involves making time for them to go windsurfing, play chess or have a family." Perhaps there will be a job for James Whyte.

how to stop your job

damaging family life

1. Agree how to share the load: who picks up the kids from school, etc.

2. Encourage responsibility in your children.

3. Decide your priorities: perhaps that means giving up smoking and going out for dinner so you can have a cleaner.

4. Stop being a perfectionist.

5. Plan your time very carefully.

6. Learn to delegate and to say no.

7. Stop worrying that everything should be done your way.

8. Overcome procrastination.

9. Look after yourself otherwise you are no good to anyone.

10. Be alert to warning signs - drinking, insomnia - and so avoid a crisis.